Russia's State of Nation Speaker? Still Putin

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Alexei Druzhinin, Pool / AP

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

As an old Soviet joke had it, the prize painting of Vladimir Lenin's 1970 centennial exhibit was the work titled "Lenin in Poland," which depicted Leon Trotsky, Lenin's fellow leader and rival, embracing Lenin's wife. "But where is Lenin?" the surprised public asked. "Lenin is in Poland," the guide explained.

Imagine this contemporary painting, "Medvedev in India" Under the Constitution, Dmitri Medvedev is Russia's President and Chief Executive. But who gets to give his own State of the Nation address this year over state-run TV, state-run radio, a special internet-site? Why, it is Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin, the incumbent Prime Minister. He addressed his fellow citizens on Dec. 4 just as he had six times during the eight years of his two presidencies in what appears to have become a Putin tradition, notwithstanding his title and the fact that the actual president had given the official state-of-the-nation speech last month. Where was Medvedev? He was in India, conveniently on an official visit and so not in Moscow to see his prerogatives usurped. (See exclusive pictures of Vladimir Putin here.)

There was a question and answer period to Putin's appearance. And he answered 72 questions during the three-hour show. All the questions were quite predictable. Russians, who still remember the 1998 meltdown with horror, kept asking about growing unemployment and prices. Putin's answers were predictable as well. He blamed the United States for "infecting" leading world economies with the crisis, but reiterated that Russia would survive the global economic crisis with "minimal losses," and vowed to keep raising social spending and not to let a sudden devaluation of the ruble happen. (See a video of TIME's Person of the Year interview with Vladimir Putin.)

That flies in the face of what some Russian economists believe should be done. A Russian banker told TIME that "only political considerations and fear of social unrest keeps the government from the devaluation of the ruble, which is the only economically sound decision now." The longer Putin stalls on that, the worse the consequences for the economy, the banker holds. Others are harsher. They say that Russia's current problems are home-grown and cannot really be blamed on the world financial crisis, no matter how alarming the global problem may be. "Our crisis is entirely of our own making," says the noted economist Yevgeni Gontmakher, formerly adviser to the late president Boris Yeltsin adviser and Deputy Minister for Social Affairs during Putin's presidency. He believes Russia's ongoing problems are the result of policies Putin has put in place since 2000.

On foreign affairs, Putin praised NATO decision not to let Ukraine and Georgia be part of the Membership Action Plan; he also threatened Ukraine, which Moscow considers too pro-western, with turning off the natural gas tap, should Kiev fail to deliver on its debt, which Putin assesses at $2 billion. But Russia has been known to forgive much larger debts to countries that as much as indicated their readiness to accommodate Russia's interests.

If anyone wondered about Medvedev, Putin pointedly reminded everyone who was in charge. "President Medvedev and I work in an effective tandem," said Putin, whose United Russia dominates the country's legislative chambers. Indeed, Medvedev and Russia's legislators seem to do whatever they feel Putin would like. Change the constitution? Last month, Medvedev moved that the Presidential term be extended from four to six year, and bingo — both houses of the Russian Parliament and most regional legislatures voted that move unto the law within weeks. It all contributed to the speculation that Putin wants to re-occupy the presidency once the democratic fig-leaf of a Medvedev interregnum is over with.